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1.  nSMase2 activation and trafficking are modulated by oxidative stress to induce apoptosis☆ 
We have previously shown that accumulation of ceramide, triggered by hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), induces apoptosis of human airway epithelial (HAE) cells. Under oxidant exposure, a lung sphingomyelinase (SMase) is activated and displays continued ceramide generation and pro-apoptotic signaling, thus leading to the pathological apoptosis that causes lung injury. In a search for a specific SMase that is modulated by oxidative stress, we recently cloned nSMase2 from monkey lung tissue and HAE cells. Here, we show that this nSMase2 is up-regulated by an oxidant (H2O2) and is inhibited by an antioxidant (glutathione (GSH)). Moreover, nSMase2 subcellular localization is governed by oxidant exposure, which leads to its preferential trafficking to the plasma membrane, where it generates ceramide and induces apoptosis. On the other hand, exposure to GSH results in nSMase2 trafficking to the nucleus, where it neither generates ceramide nor induces apoptosis.
PMCID: PMC4370275  PMID: 16631623
Neutral sphingomyelinase 2; Apoptosis; Hydrogen peroxide; Glutathione; Ceramide; Lung
2.  Ceramide accumulation precedes caspase-3 activation during apoptosis of A549 human lung adenocarcinoma cells 
Ceramide, the basic structural unit of sphingolipids, controls the balance between cell growth and death by inducing apoptosis. We have previously shown that accumulation of ceramide, triggered by hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) or by short-chain ceramide analogs, induces apoptosis of lung epithelial cells. Here we elucidate the link between caspase-3 activation, at the execution phase, and ceramide accumulation, at the commitment phase of apoptosis in A549 human lung adenocarcinoma cells. The induction of ceramide accumulation by various triggers of ceramide generation, such as H2O2, C6-ceramide, or UDP-glucose-ceramide glucosyltransferase inhibitor DL-threo-1-phenyl-2-decanoylamino-3-morpholino-1-propanol, triggered the activation of caspase-3. This ceramide elevation also induced the cleavage of the death substrate poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase and was followed by apoptotic cell death. Ceramide-mediated apoptosis was blocked by a general caspase inhibitor, Boc-D-fluoromethylketone, and by overexpression of the antiapoptotic protein Bcl-2. Notably, overexpression of Bcl-2 reduced the basal cellular levels of ceramide and prevented the induction of ceramide generation by C6-ceramide, which implies ceramide generation as a possible target for the antiapoptotic effects of Bcl-2.
PMCID: PMC4370276  PMID: 12576296
Bcl-2 overexpression; hydrogen peroxide; sphingolipid signaling
3.  Ceramide-Mediated Apoptosis in Lung Epithelial Cells Is Regulated by Glutathione 
Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are mediators of lung injury, and glutathione (GSH) is the major nonprotein antioxidant that protects the cell from oxidative stress. We have recently shown that H2O2 induces ceramide-mediated apoptosis in human lung epithelial cells. We hypothesized that ROS-mediated depletion of GSH plays a regulatory role in ceramide generation, and thus in the induction of apoptosis. Our present studies demonstrate that GSH at physiologic concentrations (1 to 10 mM) inhibits ceramide production in a time- and dose-dependent manner in A549 human alveolar epithelial cells. On the other hand, buthionine-sulfoximine–mediated depletion of intracellular GSH induces elevation of ceramide levels and apoptosis. In addition, GSH blocks H2O2-mediated induction of intracellular ceramide generation and apoptosis. These effects were not mimicked by oxidized GSH (GSSG) or other thiol antioxidants, such as dithiothreitol and 2-mercaptoethanol. Moreover, increase of intracellular H2O2, mediated by inhibition of catalase by aminotriazole, also induces ceramide generation and apoptosis. These effects were blocked by N-acetylcysteine. Our results suggest that GSH depletion may be the link between oxidative stress and ceramide-mediated apoptosis in the lung.
PMCID: PMC4370277  PMID: 11726392
4.  Lung Cancer and Lung Injury: The Dual Role of Ceramide 
Sphingolipids play key roles in cancer, yet our current understanding of sphingolipid function in lung cancer is limited to a few key players. The best characterized of these are sphingosine-1-phoshate and ceramide which are described for their opposing roles in cell fate. However, because sphingolipids as a whole are readily interconverted by a complex enzymatic machinery, no single sphingolipid appears to have exactly one role. Instead, the roles of specific sphingolipids appear to be context specific as demonstrated by findings that ceramide-1-phosphate has both proliferative and apoptotic effects depending on its concentration. Therefore, we present herein several years of research on ceramide, a sphingolipid linked to apoptotic signaling, that is emerging in cancer research for its potential roles in proliferation and cell-to-cell communication via exosomes.
Ceramide is a well-studied sphingolipid in both normal and pathological conditions ranging from skin development to lung cancer. Interestingly, several groups have previously reported its increased levels in emphysema patients who are smokers, a patient subpopulation greatly susceptible to lung cancer. However, the molecular mechanisms through which cigarette smoke (CS) and ceramide accumulation lead to lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) specifically, are unknown.
Interestingly, recent studies clearly establish that two signaling pathways are activated during CS exposure in the lung airway. One centers on the activation of neutral sphingomyelinase2 (nSMase2), an enzyme that hydrolyzes sphingomyelin to ceramide. The other pathway focuses on the oncogenic EGF receptor (EGFR), which becomes aberrantly activated but not degraded, leading to prolonged proliferative signaling. Recent studies show that these two signaling pathways may actually converge and integrate. Specifically, Goldkorn et al. demonstrated that during CS exposure, EGFR is favorably co-localized in ceramide-enriched regions of the plasma membrane, proposing that nSMase2/ceramide plays a role in the aberrant EGFR activation, leading to augmented tumorigenic signaling. Moreover, new findings indicate that CS exposure may induce resistance to the tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs), used for treatment of NSCLC, merely through posttranslational molecular alterations. Furthermore, structural anomalies of the CS-activated EGFR appear to be supported by the excess ceramide produced by the CS-activated nSMase2 in the plasma membrane of lung epithelial cells.
We present in this chapter the progression of the sphingolipid field in lung cancer using ceramide as an example. However, many crucial questions remain to be answered regarding the role of sphingolipids in lung cancer because of the glut of promising observations.
PMCID: PMC4370279  PMID: 23563653
Sphingolipids; Lung cancer and injury; Ceramide; EGFR; Neutral sphingomyelinase 2; Cigarette smoke; Oxidative stress
5.  Epidermal growth factor receptor exposed to cigarette smoke is aberrantly activated and undergoes perinuclear trafficking 
Exposure to hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), one of the reactive oxidants in the gas phase of cigarette smoke (CS), induces aberrant phosphorylation of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), resulting in the lack of ubiquitination by c-Cbl, and impaired degradation. EGFR activation without the feedback regulation of normal degradation leads to uncontrolled cell growth and tumor promotion. Using immunoprecipitation, immunoblotting, and confocal microscopy, we now demonstrate that the pattern of EGFR activation by CS is similar to H2O2. We found that exposure of human airway epithelial cells to CS, as with exposure to H2O2, not only results in an increase in EGFR activation over time, but the EGFR activated by H2O2 or CS is neither ubiquitinated nor subsequently degraded due to its inability to bind the E3 ubiquitin ligase, c-Cbl, either directly or indirectly via the Grb2 adapter protein. Moreover, the stabilized H2O2- and CS-activated EGFR remains plasma membrane-bound, while a population of the receptor is trafficked to a perinuclear region. Concomitantly, CS exposure results in the activation of downstream Akt and ERK1/2 survival and proliferation pathways. Therefore, exposure to CS, like exposure to H2O2, results in prolonged signaling by the EGFR and may contribute to uncontrolled lung cell growth.
PMCID: PMC4370285  PMID: 17971399
6.  Src mediates cigarette smoke-induced resistance to tyrosine kinase inhibitors in NSCLC cells 
Molecular cancer therapeutics  2013;12(8):1579-1590.
The EGF Receptor (EGFR) is a proto-oncogene commonly dysregulated in several cancers including non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and, thus, is targeted for treatment using tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) such as Erlotinib. However, despite the efficacy observed in NSCLC patients harboring oncogenic variants of the EGFR, general ineffectiveness of TKIs in NSCLC patients who are current and former smokers necessitates identification of novel mechanisms to overcome this phenomenon. Previously, we showed that NSCLC cells harboring either wild-type (WT) EGFR or oncogenic mutant (MT) L858R EGFR become resistant to the effects of TKIs when exposed to cigarette smoke (CS), evidenced by their auto-phosphorylation and prolonged downstream signaling. Here, we present Src as a target mediating CS-induced resistance to TKIs in both WT EGFR and L858R MT EGFR expressing NSCLC cells. First, we show that CS exposure of A549 cells leads to time-dependent activation of Src which then abnormally binds to the WT EGFR causing TKI resistance, contrasting previous observations of constitutive binding between inactive Src and TKI-sensitive L858R MT EGFR. Next, we demonstrate that Src inhibition restores TKI sensitivity in CS-exposed NSCLC cells, preventing EGFR auto-phosphorylation in the presence of Erlotinib. Furthermore, we show that over-expression of a dominant-negative Src (Y527F/K295R) restores TKI sensitivity to A549 exposed to CS. Importantly, the TKI resistance that emerges even in CS-exposed L858R EGFR expressing NSCLC cells could be eliminated with Src inhibition. Together, these findings offer new rationale for using Src inhibitors for treating TKI-resistant NSCLC commonly observed in smokers.
PMCID: PMC4370317  PMID: 23686837
EGFR; Src; lung cancer; cigarette smoke; TKI resistance; oxidative stress; NSCLC
7.  Cigarette smoke induces aberrant EGF receptor activation which mediates lung cancer development and resistance to tyrosine kinase inhibitors 
Molecular cancer therapeutics  2012;11(4):795-804.
The EGF Receptor (EGFR) and its downstream signaling are implicated in lung cancer development. Therefore, much effort was spent in developing specific tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) that bind to the EGFR ATP-pocket, blocking EGFR phosphorylation/signaling. Clinical use of TKIs is effective in a subset of lung cancers with mutations in the EGFR kinase domain, rendering the receptor highly susceptible to TKIs. However, these benefits are limited, and emergence of additional EGFR mutations usually results in TKI resistance and disease progression.
Previously, we demonstrated one mechanism linking cigarette smoke (CS) to EGFR-driven lung cancer. Specifically, exposure of lung epithelial cells to CS-induced oxidative stress stimulates aberrant EGFR phosphorylation/activation with impaired receptor ubiquitination/degradation. The abnormal stabilization of the activated receptor leads to uncontrolled cell growth and tumorigenesis.
Here we describe for the first time a novel post-translational mechanism of EGFR resistance to TKIs. Exposure of airway epithelial cells to CS causes aberrant phosphorylation/activation of EGFR, resulting in a conformation that is different from that induced by the ligand EGF. Unlike EGF-activated EGFR, CS-activated EGFR binds c-Src and caveolin-1 and does not undergo canonical dimerization. Importantly, the CS-activated EGFR is not inhibited by TKIs (AG1478; Erlotinib; Gefitinib); in fact, the CS exposure induces TKI-resistance even in the TKI-sensitive EGFR mutants.
Our findings demonstrate that CS exposure stimulates not only aberrant EGFR phosphorylation impairing receptor degradation, but also induces a different EGFR conformation and signaling that are resistant to TKIs. Together, these findings offer new insights into CS-induced lung cancer development and TKI resistance.
PMCID: PMC4370319  PMID: 22302097
EGFR conformation; lung cancer; cigarette smoke; TKI resistance
8.  Lung Injury and Lung Cancer Caused by Cigarette Smoke-Induced Oxidative Stress: Molecular Mechanisms and Therapeutic Opportunities Involving the Ceramide-Generating Machinery and Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 
Antioxidants & Redox Signaling  2014;21(15):2149-2174.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer are frequently caused by tobacco smoking. However, these diseases present opposite phenotypes involving redox signaling at the cellular level. While COPD is characterized by excessive airway epithelial cell death and lung injury, lung cancer is caused by uncontrolled epithelial cell proliferation. Notably, epidemiological studies have demonstrated that lung cancer incidence is significantly higher in patients who have preexisting emphysema/lung injury. However, the molecular link and common cell signaling events underlying lung injury diseases and lung cancer are poorly understood. This review focuses on studies of molecular mechanism(s) underlying smoking-related lung injury (COPD) and lung cancer. Specifically, the role of the ceramide-generating machinery during cigarette smoke-induced oxidative stress leading to both apoptosis and proliferation of lung epithelial cells is emphasized. Over recent years, it has been established that ceramide is a sphingolipid playing a major role in lung epithelia structure/function leading to lung injury in chronic pulmonary diseases. However, new and unexpected findings draw attention to its potential role in lung development, cell proliferation, and tumorigenesis. To address this dichotomy in detail, evidence is presented regarding several protein targets, including Src, p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase, and neutral sphingomyelinase 2, the major sphingomyelinase that controls ceramide generation during oxidative stress. Furthermore, their roles are presented not only in apoptosis and lung injury but also in enhancing cell proliferation, lung cancer development, and resistance to epidermal growth factor receptor-targeted therapy for treating lung cancer. Antioxid. Redox Signal. 21, 2149–2174.
I. Introduction
II. Oxidative Stress and Pulmonary Disease
A. Smoking, oxidative stress, and inflammation
B. Smoking and emphysema/lung injury: the role of apoptosis in the disease development
III. The Role of Ceramide in Oxidative Stress-Induced Lung Epithelial Apoptosis
A. Neutral sphingomyelinase 2-induced ceramide generation as a specific target in CS-induced lung injury
B. The surprising role of Src in controlling nSMase2/ceramide generation
IV. Oxidative Stress and Lung Cancer
A. Stress-driven endocytosis of tyrosine-phosphorylated EGFR leads to tumorigenesis: the critical role of oxidative stress
1. Canonical EGFR activation, intracellular trafficking, and degradation
2. CS produces H2O2-induced oxidative stress that aberrantly activates EGFR
3. The lack of c-Cbl binding to EGFR causes prolonged proliferation signaling under oxidative stress
4. EGFR perinuclear sorting under oxidative stress
5. An aberrant activated conformation of EGFR under oxidative stress underlies lung cancer resistance to targeted therapy
V. Smoking and Lung Diseases: The Enigmatic Association Between Lung Injury and Lung Cancer
VI. The Dichotomous Response of Airway Epithelial Cells to CS Oxidants: A Critical Role for Src
VII. The Unexpected Role of Ceramide in Cell Proliferation and Tumorigenesis
A. Cell membrane ceramide-enriched signaling platform and stabilization of aberrantly activated EGFR
B. Membrane ordered lipid domains
C. Ceramide selectively displaces cholesterol from ordered lipid domains (rafts)
D. Ceramide/cholesterol ratio affects EGFR and Src
E. Ceramide, EGFR, and Src
F. The link between ceramide and Src underlies their dual roles in apoptosis and proliferation
VIII. Propagation of Oncogenes and miRNA via nSMase2-Dependent Ceramide Generation and Exosome Secretion
IX. Updates on Novel Unresolved Complexities in the Ceramide-Generating Machinery
X. Therapeutic Perspectives
XI. Concluding Remarks
PMCID: PMC4215561  PMID: 24684526
9.  Neutral Sphingomyelinase 2 
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is caused by exposure to cigarette smoke (CS). One mechanism of CS-induced lung injury is aberrant generation of ceramide, which leads to elevated apoptosis of epithelial and endothelial cells in the alveolar spaces. Recently, we discovered that CS-induced ceramide generation and apoptosis in pulmonary cells is governed by neutral sphingomyelinase (nSMase) 2. In the current experiments, we expanded our studies to investigate whether nSMase2 governs ceramide generation and apoptosis in vivo using rodent and human models of CS-induced lung injury. We found that exposure of mice or rats to CS leads to colocalizing elevations of ceramide levels and terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase mediated X-dUTP nick end labeling–positive cells in lung tissues. These increases are nSMase2 dependent, and are abrogated by treatment with N-acetyl cysteine or anti-nSMase2 small interfering RNA (siRNA). We further showed that mice that are heterozygous for nSMase2 demonstrate significant decrease in ceramide generation after CS exposure, whereas acidic sphingomyelinase (aSMase) knockout mice maintain wild-type ceramide levels, confirming our previous findings (in human airway epithelial cells) that only nSMase2, and not aSMase, is activated by CS exposure. Lastly, we found that lung tissues from patients with emphysema (smokers) display significantly higher levels of nSMase2 expression compared with lung tissues from healthy control subjects. Taken together, these data establish the central in vivo role of nSMase2 in ceramide generation, aberrant apoptosis, and lung injury under CS exposure, underscoring its promise as a novel target for the prevention of CS-induced airspace destruction.
PMCID: PMC3095936  PMID: 20448054
neutral sphingomyelinase2; ceramide; apoptosis; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; mouse model
10.  Lung Injury and Cancer 
Cigarette smoke has been connected to an array of chronic lung diseases and is a major source of morbidity and mortality. Active smoking is responsible for approximately 90% of lung cancer cases. In addition, cigarette smoke is associated with other chronic pulmonary diseases such as pulmonary edema, chronic bronchitis, and pulmonary emphysema, the last two also termed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Lung cancer and COPD are developed very frequently in chronic cigarette smokers. It has been known for some time that lung cancer incidence increases in patients with COPD. Even the existence of some low-grade emphysema without noticeable airflow obstruction is associated with significantly elevated risk of lung cancer. These recent clinical insights demand new thinking and exploration of novel mechanistic studies to fully understand these observations. Lung injury and repair involve cell death and hyperplasia of airway epithelial cells and infiltration of inflammatory cells. All of these occur simultaneously. The mechanisms of cell death and hyperplasia in the lung constitute two sides of the coin of lung injury and repair. However, most molecular studies in airway epithelial cells center on the mechanism(s) of either cell growth and proliferation or cell death and the ceramide-generating machinery that drives aberrant induction of apoptotic cell death. Very few address both sides of the coin as an outcome of cigarette smoke exposure, which is the focus of this review.
PMCID: PMC2933544  PMID: 20525802
ceramide machinery; EGFR trafficking; cigarette smoke; lung injury; lung cancer
11.  EGF Receptor Exposed to Oxidative Stress Acquires Abnormal Phosphorylation and Aberrant Activated Conformation That Impairs Canonical Dimerization 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(8):e23240.
Crystallographic studies have offered understanding of how receptor tyrosine kinases from the ErbB family are regulated by their growth factor ligands. A conformational change of the EGFR (ErbB1) was shown to occur upon ligand binding, where a solely ligand-mediated mode of dimerization/activation was documented. However, this dogma of dimerization/activation was revolutionized by the discovery of constitutively active ligand-independent EGFR mutants. In addition, other ligand-independent activation mechanisms may occur. We have shown that oxidative stress (ox-stress), induced by hydrogen peroxide or cigarette smoke, activates EGFR differently than its ligand, EGF, thereby inducing aberrant phosphorylation and impaired trafficking and degradation of EGFR. Here we demonstrate that ox-stress activation of EGFR is ligand-independent, does not induce “classical” receptor dimerization and is not inhibited by the tyrosine kinase inhibitor AG1478. Thus, an unprecedented, apparently activated, state is found for EGFR under ox-stress. Furthermore, this activation mechanism is temperature-dependent, suggesting the simultaneous involvement of membrane structure. We propose that ceramide increase under ox-stress disrupts cholesterol-enriched rafts leading to EGFR re-localization into the rigid, ceramide-enriched rafts. This increase in ceramide also supports EGFR aberrant trafficking to a peri-nuclear region. Therefore, the EGFR unprecedented and activated conformation could be sustained by simultaneous alterations in membrane structure under ox-stress.
PMCID: PMC3154401  PMID: 21853092

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